Listening to Lions
[Lions] have personalities, temperaments, moods, and they can be voluble about all this, sometimes chatty, sometimes (when they are working) radiating a more focused informativeness. Nor are the exchanges and the work in question suffering-free. In particular, they are not free of the suffering that accompanies failures of understanding, refusals and denials of the sort that characterize many relationships.
Vicki Hearne, Animal Happiness: A Moving Exploration of Animals and Their Emotions (172–173)
While Balaam’s donkey is notable for being one of only two animals who speak in the entire Tanakh (the other being the serpent in Gen. 2), to me, and probably to any human with a companion animal, it’s clear that the donkey begins talking well before God opens her mouth. Based on her research on the relationship between lions and their trainers, scholar Vicki Hearne has argued that animals and humans do converse, but spoken words make up only a part of that communication; there are also gestures, postures, and forms of physical contact. Blurring the sharp line between humans and animals (for which language often serves as strong evidence), Hearne imagines interspecies relationships as being very much like those between humans, where communication can lead to mutuality and trust but is also prone to failures that can have dire consequences.
Balaam’s interaction with the donkey is an example of the failure that leads to suffering when someone isn’t listening. The donkey knows something about God and tries to communicate that to her human. But she’s in the frustrating position of being unable to use human language to share what she knows. Instead she uses another form of communication—bodily movement—moving three times to avoid the angel. Balaam should have “gotten” that something unusual was happening. As the donkey herself points out after God enables her speech, she’s been carrying Balaam for a long time and she’s never done anything similar before. But each time she moves, Balaam becomes angry and lashes out in violence. The problem is not that she can’t speak his language; it is his unwillingness to really understand hers.